Does he have no fear? Once before he was hunted, to be executed for this sort of deed, and he ran away; yet here he is again burying the dead! (Tobit 2:8)
Today, I completed His Accustomed Place, a short story about Haman, a beggar who dwells at the periphery of the walls of ancient Nineveh. His daily routine is interrupted when a dead body is nearly dumped on top of him, which leads him to reassess the nature of charity and habit. Let’s hope that it finds a good home as I begin the submission process.
The story was inspired by the Book of Tobit, which was not part of the Hebrew Tanakh but entered Christian scripture by way of the Greek Septuagint. The Protestant Reformation later relegated Tobit to the Apocrypha, but it was among the Deuterocanonical books included in the 1611 King James Bible and retained in contemporary Catholic and Orthodox editions.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen, and Tobit was among those Israelites who were brought in captivity to Nineveh. There, Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, ordered the deaths of many newly arrived Jews and left their bodies in the streets or chucked them over the walls. Tobit persisted in burying his tribesmen even though these charitable acts led to his exile under threat of death. He was eventually forgiven when Esarhaddon became king, but Tobit went right back to unlawfully burying the dead. This is a fragment of the narrative, but it is what engaged my imagination.
Of course, Tobit is being a righteous Jew (and his righteousness is explained in no uncertain terms). The Jewish custom is to bury a body right away, as soon as is possible, so what he does is quite a mitzvah. It is admirable, but I saw a certain gallow’s humor in it. I’m sure that my fascination is rooted in my First World privilege, seeing as how bodies in the street and sanctions on interring enemies of the state feature into only a handful of Disney attractions.
The notion of a corpse being “thrown behind the wall of Nineveh” stuck with me, but the protagonist I envisioned was more along the lines of a disreputable alter ego of Tevye, Sholem Aleichem’s famous character, who was the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof. Tobit is a man whose tribulations cease with a son who marries well and prospers from his inheritance, whereas poor Tevye always finds that “the well runs dry, and all that’s left is a hole in the ground.” I looked more and more to Tevye when I found myself running into rough patches in the narrative, but I’m still in a grimdark state of mind from the novel that I’m working on, so my guy ended up being a leper of questionable moral fiber.
Still, it is intimidating for an outsider to find inspiration in Jewish midrash or Yiddish fiction, as any gentile would be hard-pressed to do justice to Judaism’s rich storytelling tradition. I’d like to think that the roots of my story are adequately planted below the surface of the narrative, but inspiration is a tricky thing. Imitation is inevitable. As Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” We all borrow seeds, but a good author must ensure that they grow into something worthwhile, not just a clinging vine dependent on the greatness of what came before.
I owe my wife a hearty “thank you” for helping to shape this story. Let’s hope someone gets to read it published somewhere soon.